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Stop Expecting Meaning from Work

Expecting our jobs to give us meaning is a fool’s errand.

Photo by Kevin Bhagat on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Kevin Bhagat on Unsplash

It’s the beginning of fall, which means that a new crop of college graduates are a few months into their first professional roles, while a new class of college seniors is starting to think about what comes next for them. The seniors are probably imagining how they will put four years of college to work, how incredible it is going to be to live out their dreams and passions, and the big lives that they are going to build after graduation.

The new graduates, by this point, probably know the dirty little secret of being a working professional adult: it’s not all that it’s advertised to be. Being an adult is taking out the trash and paying bills and getting up at the same time, every day, to go into the same job to spend eight or ten (or more) hours doing something that sometimes feels a lot like work, and not much like living the dream. And, they are probably starting to ask questions like, is this all there is? Or, how am I making a difference?

There is a shift that happened at some point over the past few decades, where work went from something that we did to support our lives to something that became our life. At some point, we decided that work should give us meaning and purpose and align with our innermost passions and lift us up and give us a reason to be, each and every day. At some point, on the work orientation spectrum of job, career, and calling, we decided that we should all strive for a calling and that work inherently should be something that fulfills us.

There is value in striving for meaning and purpose. A study from the UK published early in 2019 found that those who reported that they felt like they did activities that were meaningful to them had higher self-reported and objective measures of mental and physical health. Seeing our lives as connected to something bigger than ourselves has real, tangible benefits.

And, increasingly people are seeking these benefits from their professional roles. Recent research on employee engagement found that “9 out of 10 career professionals told researchers that they would sacrifice 23 percent of their future earnings—an average of $21,000 a year—for ‘work that is always meaningful.’" What does that mean? The report identifies three factors: having control over how to do one’s work, getting helpful feedback, and knowing that the work ultimately serves a higher purpose. Gallup has long-associated employee engagement with meaning and purpose and recently identified a “purpose gap” between the expectations of college graduates for finding purpose and meaning at work, and the realities of actually finding it there.

The hard truth is that it’s a lot to expect out of any role, and in particular out of one’s first professional role after college. If you’re truly lucky, your first job will connect with your passions and make you feel like you’re serving a higher purpose. But it’s more likely that it will feel like a grind, like you’re just putting in hours to serve someone else’s higher purpose. And that’s OK. These roles still have value. The great thing about our first professional roles is that they teach us how to be a professional. You are learning critical skills related to managing time, priorities, and interpersonal relationships. You are learning what it means to have a work ethic and a professional reputation, and how to build both. You are learning how to navigate organizational politics effectively. And, you’re learning what you do and don’t like about work, so that the next role has more of the former and less of the latter.

Expecting work to give us meaning is asking a lot from work, at any stage. At what point did we decide that work owed us that, just for showing up? It’s worth noting that in a report on the UK study in Forbes, one of the study’s authors states that "we think there is a two-way relationship between our experiences and life seeming worthwhile. People who are socially engaged and healthy may rate their activities as more meaningful, while at the same time this sense of meaning may contribute to more engagement, better mental health, less loneliness and so on." In other words, while healthier, engaged activities may give our lives greater meaning, it’s just as likely that seeing life as meaningful will result in healthier, more engaged activities. It’s an attitude and a choice.

A basic tenet of systems thinking is understanding that our actions are always part of a greater whole, and may be influenced by, or have an influence on, other people’s actions and behaviors. From an organizational standpoint, this means that everyone throughout the organization must understand how his or her role and work contributes to the overarching mission of the organization.

As a new professional, you can use this principle to give your work greater meaning and purpose, even when it feels like it is giving you none. For example, if you’re spending your days filling out and maintaining spreadsheets, instead of viewing this as a mindless task that is beneath you, think about how those spreadsheets and that data is enabling others to keep the organization moving forward. Or, if you are answering phones as a front desk receptionist, think of yourself as the chief public relations officer of the organization, who shapes the first and most lasting impression that every customer or client has of the organization.

The bottom line is this: the ways in which we show up to work are a daily choice. You can choose to see it as disappointing and lacking meaning. Or, you can choose to learn from the experience and put meaning to it. The choice is yours.

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